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Uranium enrichment: No capacity growth in 20 years

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Special: The magazine of hope

(October 16, 1998) Technologies for the enrichment of uranium were originally developed for the production of nuclear weapons, just as is the case for reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel. Still, the largest part of current enrichment capacity is of military origin. However, the military production of enriched uranium has almost been halted.

(499/500.4932) WISE Amsterdam -The five officially nuclear weapon states (US, Russia, France, Great Britain and China) have all stopped production of enriched uranium for military use. By now only the new nuclear weapons countries Pakistan and India enrich uranium for military purposes. And probably Israel. Brazil is producing enriched uranium for the nuclear submarines it is building. About 99% of all enrichment production is destined for use in commercial nuclear power plants. Current enrichment production capacity is about twice the consumption.

Nuclear proliferation
Nuclear proliferation by way of the spreading of enrichment technologies continues to be an important road for states with nuclear weapons ambitions. This was recently illustrated by the nuclear tests in Pakistan and India.
In the seventies it was feared that especially Brazil and South Africa were developing a uranium-enrichment capacity for military use. South Africa announced officially it had indeed produced nuclear weapons made from highly enriched uranium but has since dismantled both its nuclear weapons and its enrichment plants. Brazil, too, stopped with its nuclear weapons program, but continued to build enrichment plants. It is planned to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear submarines.
After the second Gulf War it appeared that Iraq was close to the manufucturing of nuclear weapons made from highly enriched uranium. It has secretly and illegally developed several different enrichment technologies: the electro-magnetical isotope separation (EMIS) method and the gas-centrifuge technology. Evidence was found by UN inspection teams that gas-centrifuge technology and centrifuge rotors originated from Urenco. It was stolen and smuggled to Iraq by German ex-employees from a Urenco Germany firm, MAN.
The spread of enrichment technology still goes on. Russia has sold a gas-centrifuge plant to China. It is said that China in turn has helped Pakistan to expand its enrichment industry. However, it was again Urenco technology that Pakistan started with. A Pakistan spy, Khan, worked at the Dutch Urenco enrichment plan, where he succeeded in acquiring blueprints of Urenco gas-centrifuges and the specifications of the needed subparts plus the names and addresses of the suppliers of these subparts. An extensive espionage network of smugglers and subfirms enabled Pakistan to build gas-centrifuge enrichment plants. Mr. Khan is now director of the Kahuta enrichment plant and is a national hero. He boasts that his plant is the axis of the Pakistan nuclear weapons program. It is rumored that Iran, too, is developing an indigenous enrichment industry.

These examples show that the civil enrichment industry has been and still is an important source of nuclear proliferation. Again and again, would-be nuclear weapons states have succeeded in acquiring enrichment technology from countries with a civil enrichment industry. It can only be expected that espionage will continue in spite of export bans on enrichment technology and parts of enrichment plants.

Civil enrichment industry
In 1978, there existed plans for expansion of the enrichment capacity from 59 million swu to 88 to 128 million swu by 2000. [Nuclear Fuel, 20 August 1979, p.9]. These plans were based on far too optimistic prognoses of installed nuclear capacity by 2000. In 1978 the civil consumption of enriched uranium was about 22 million swu/year. The overcapacity at that time was more than 100%.
Now, 20 years later, worldwide consumption of swu for civil nuclear power plants has increased only slightly: from 22 to about 28 million swu. Production capacity by 1998 has even slightly decreased to 55.8 million swu. These figures are in strong contrast with 1978 expectations. Overcapacity is still about 100%. The situation of oversupply has worsened by the increased use of highly enriched uranium from military stockpiles by Russia and the US. Urenco, Japan and China have plans to expand enrichment production capacities.
In Japan, the utilities are hesitating to invest further in the increase of the domestic enrichment industry because its production prices are much higher than imported enrichment services. Nuclear utilities are under increasing pressure to lower their electricity prices. A delay in expansion is therefore likely.
China has two little military enrichment plants. In connection with its ambitious nuclear power planning, China bought a gas-centrifuge plant from Russia. The old gas-diffusion plants are to be closed. The centrifuges are fabricated in Russia and technology transfer is not included. Planned production capacity is about 1 million swu by 2000.
As in 1978, the main four producers of enriched uranium are the US, Russia, Eurodif and Urenco. See (Table I)

Table I: Main enrichment industries

Country 1978 Production capacity*1998
US 27.3 19.4
Russia 20.0 20.0
Eurodif 10.8 10.8
Urenco 0.4 3.9
China 0.4 0.8
Japan 0.1 0.9
Total 59.0 55.8
* in million swu

Developments in main producer countries
At present, the enrichment market is stagnating for two reasons:

  1. decrease of installed nuclear capacity and
  2. sale of civil and military stockpiles.

Estimated total stockpiles amount to more than 12 years of future civil use. The US and Eurodif are operating gas-diffusion enrichment plants, all other countries use the gas-centrifuge technology. Gas-diffusion plants consume extremely large amounts of electricity per enrichment unit; about 2400 KWh/swu. Gas- centrifuge plants use much less energy: 40-100 KWh/swu.
The enrichment market is dominated by four big producers, which all profit from protected home-markets. By asking high prices at their homemarket they are able to offer low prices at foreign markets. Russia is the cheapest supplier of enrichment services: long-term contract prices have come down in the last years from US$100-US$125 to US$70-US$85.

1. United States
This year the US enrichment industry has been privatized. The new firm, USEC, plans to have a laser-enrichment plant operating by 2005. As a result of the continued overcapacity, the US decided in 1985 to close one of its three enrichment plants, a Portsmouth plant after a US$3 billion investment. Thanks to the fact that the enrichment plants are completely written down and the current low fossil fuel prices, the USEC is able to compete with the other main producers. At foreign markets swu is offered at about US$85-US$100/swu. By 1970 the US had a Western market share of almost 100%, dropping to the current 48%.
The USEC is now underfeeding its plants. That means it does not use all the natural uranium it gets from its clients for enriching. USEC uses less uranium and more enrichment work. It plans to sell the uranium it saved in this way on the market. USEC inherited large amounts of stockpiles from the Department of Energy, the former owner of the plants, which they also plan to sell on the market. A result could be market disruption and lower prices.

2. Russia
After the end of the Cold War Russia increased its export of enriched uranium to the West by both the sale of more enrichment services as by the sale of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) from military origin. Its market share in the European Union was limited to 20 percent to protect the European enrichment industries Eurodif and Urenco. Their present market share worldwide is about 25%. Most of its capacity is unused. A Russian specialty, born out of the need for foreign valuta, is the enrichment of depleted uranium for Urenco and Eurodif. In this way, they are able to utilize a larger part of their enrichment plants.

3. Eurodif
The French enrichment plant at Tricastin profits by the special, very low electricity prices offered by the French utility EdF. This is in fact a state subsidy. The plant is mainly owned by Cogema (55%). Italy, Spain and Belgium also have shares in the plant. These countries (except Italy of course, which phased out nuclear energy) buy all their enrichment services from Eurodif, which market share is about 20%.

4. Urenco
This troika industry has factories in three countries: at Gronau, Germany; Almelo, the Netherlands; and Capenhurst, England. Thanks to protection of the European market and its low prices, second to Russia, Urenco increased its production capacity since 1978 from 0.4 to 3.9 million swu, about 13% of the market. Prognoses back in 1970 were to have a capacity of 10 million by 1985. In 1978 it was planned to have a capacity of 4.5 million swu by 2000. It still plans a capacity increase to 4.5 million swu by 2000. This expansion is not justified by the present overcapacity.

Source and contact: Joop Boer at WISE Amsterdam